CAMP HILL, Pa. – In 2006, Pennsylvania voters ended Rick Santorum’s Senate career. Six years later, could the Keystone State shut down his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination?
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Home states have posed critical tests for GOP candidates this year, from Mitt Romney in his birth state of Michigan to Newt Gingrich in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress. Next month’s Pennsylvania primary is a must-win battle for Santorum in the state he served as a congressman and senator for 16 years.
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If Santorum fails to win Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary – and there are signs he’s vulnerable here despite his longstanding ties to the state – it could puncture any hope he has of capturing his party’s presidential nomination. A primary race that had threatened to last until the summer could end more suddenly if front-runner Romney manages a Pennsylvania upset.
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“If Santorum loses Pennsylvania, it’s over,” said Lowman Henry, who hosted the annual gathering of Pennsylvania conservatives this past weekend at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, where Santorum spoke Saturday. “He might as well pull out the next day.”
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Santorum’s home-state connection notwithstanding, the makeup of the Pennsylvania GOP gives Romney a chance to win the state. Exit polls from the 2008 Republican presidential primary aren’t available for Pennsylvania, but its demographics are similar to other Midwest states like Ohio and Michigan. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, scored narrow wins in both.
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“Clearly Pennsylvania is similar to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin,” said Jake Corman, a state senator and one of Santorum’s most prominent supporters in the state. “It’s the Rust Belt area, where there’s a lot of manufacturing.”
Yet Pennsylvania’s most populous region – Philadelphia and the suburbs tucked into its southeast corner – is chock full of the upscale, college-educated Republicans who have formed Romney’s base throughout the primary. It’s the region most critical to Romney’s efforts in the state, and it accounts for 35 percent of the Republican vote statewide, according to Brian Nutt, a longtime GOP strategist in the state and Santorum’s Pennsylvania director.
Because of the size of the Philadelphia media market – it includes Delaware and southern New Jersey – it’s hyper-expensive, a potential challenge for the cash-strapped Santorum operation.
“If Rick Santorum doesn’t commit substantial resources to the state, he’ll lose,” said Phil English, a former congressman from the state’s northwest region and a Romney supporter. “And he may lose anyway.”
Santorum’s favorite-son status in Pennsylvania could give him an advantage he didn’t have in either Michigan or Ohio. But on this front, the former statewide official might not reap the expected benefits.
There’s visible ambivalence about Santorum’s candidacy among both conservative activists and the state’s GOP establishment. Romney has the support of many prominent Pennsylvania Republicans, including several members of Congress, former Gov. Tom Ridge and Republican National Committee member Bob Asher. Sen. Pat Toomey, a favorite of many fiscal conservatives, hasn’t endorsed in the race, but praised Romney effusively on Friday.
“A couple of leaders in the party got involved with Mitt Romney a year-plus ago when they assumed he was going to be the nominee,” said Corman, who also serves as the state Senate appropriations chairman. “One thing about Republicans, they like to win.”
Despite Santorum’s role in the presidential primary as a conservative insurgent, many activists in Pennsylvania remain skeptical. Some have not forgiven him for his 2004 endorsement of Sen. Arlen Specter in his GOP primary battle with Toomey that year, considering it a betrayal of the conservative movement. Among conservatives at the weekend’s conference, Santorum’s support for Specter -- who later became a Democrat and helped President Obama enact his agenda – is often among the first things they mention.
“It’s a mixed reaction,” said state Sen. John Eichelberger, a Santorum supporter and favorite of many Pennsylvania conservatives. “There are a lot of people who at this conference who aren’t happy with his support of Arlen Specter.”
The lack of enthusiasm was evident at times during the conference. In a roomful of hundreds of longtime activists, some of them noticeably declined to give Santorum a standing ovation when he took the podium for his address. His speech was well-received, but a speech only hours later from former presidential candidate Herman Cain drew a far more enthusiastic reaction.